Saudi Women Drivers Rejoice at New Freedom: "I Feel Like I'm Making History"

For the first time since the late 1950s, Saudi women can legally drive in their own country.

Saudi Arabia implemented its ban on women drivers in 1957 and has since refused to issue local licenses to women, so women who violated the ban by driving faced the possibility of fines and arrest. It was the only country in the world that prohibited women from driving.

But no longer. As of June 24, the ban on female drivers was officially lifted.

The official Twitter account of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announcing the upcoming change.

And many women immediately took advantage of their new freedom. Videos of women driving were posted to social media, including by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and the Saudi Interior Ministry has announced more than 120,000 women have applied for driver’s licenses.

Though some Saudis disagree with the lifting of the ban, the women choosing to drive have been enthusiastic about what it means to them.

One Saudi woman driver said, “I feel like I’m making history,” while another said, “I feel free like a bird” — which demonstrates how significant this freedom is. The ability to drive means women now can travel when and where they want, and they have gained control over both their daily schedules and their finances, because they no longer have to wait — or pay — for male drivers or car services.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman first announced the upcoming change in September 2017, which was pushed by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his efforts to modernize the monarchy. The Crown Prince has led these changes as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan, which includes economic and social reforms intended to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and to open up the Saudi society and economy.

Other social reforms include allowing Saudi women into sports stadiums for the first time (though they had designated seating in the “family” section to segregate them from men).

It is truly inspiring to see women enjoying freedoms that were previously only allowed for men and to see the efforts to integrate Saudi women into society.

However, although these changes are encouraging, there are many customs in place that still prevent Saudi women from experiencing personal independence and freedom.

Saudi Arabia has not yet eliminated its male guardianship law, which requires all Saudi women, regardless of age, to obtain the consent of a male relative or guardian to make major life decisions, including opening a bank account, getting married, or traveling.

Furthermore, despite the reversal of the driving ban, women’s rights activists still face obstacles in Saudi Arabia. According to Human Rights Watch, at least a dozen women’s rights activists have been arrested since May; some of them still remain in jail.

And in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks countries on their gender disparities using four metrics (health, education, economy, and politics), Saudi Arabia was ranked 141 out of the 144 countries the report covered.

One Saudi woman noted that legislation is not enough to implement widespread and long-lasting reform; culture and attitudes need to change.

“Policy can change, but it’s the attitude that is the real obstacle,” said activist Manal Al-Sharif. She has called for ending the system of male guardianship.

https://twitter.com/manal_alsharif/status/1010631413891133440

Another strong gesture that would show the efforts to implement long-lasting reform are genuine would be the release of the women’s rights activists still sitting in jail.

However, the end of the driving ban is a step in the right direction, and it should be celebrated. It’s likely in the long-term that this freedom will result in a push for even more freedoms. And in the meantime, the end of the driving ban will positively affect women.

“We need the car to do our daily activities. We are working, we are mothers, we have a lot of social networking, we need to go out — so we need transport,” Amira Abdulgader told Reuters. “It will change my life.”

“Sitting behind the wheel [means] that you are the one controlling the trip,” Abdulgader said. “I would like to control every single detail of my trip. I will be the one to decide when to go, what to do, and when I will come back.”

Other Saudi women agreed that the end of the driving ban meant more opportunities for them.

“I will be able to open the door to new horizons,” said 26-year-old Shefa Mohamed Aldewelah.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.